Saturday, July 05, 2008
Highwire Moon, Susan Straight, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, 305 pp
What a great book! It is the story of a mother and daughter who are separated when the daughter is only three. Serfina was an illegal Mexican immigrant who came to California from Oaxaca to work the oranges. Being Mexican Indian, she is considered the lowest even by other Mexicans. She was only 16 and got stranded in Rio Seco, which is Straight's fictional town based on Riverside, CA.
Serfina ends up with Larry, a white man who works various construction jobs, uses speed and was raised in foster homes. They have a daughter, Elvia, but they hardly connect because Serfina does not learn English or even venture out much. She pines for home. When Elvia is three, immigration gets Serafina and sends her back to Mexico. Elvia winds up in foster care for many years until her father finds her, takes her back into his crazy life and becomes fiercely protective of her in his own way.
When the story opens, Elvia (now called Ellie) is 16 and living with Larry and his speed freak girlfriend. For all these years she has thought that her mother abandoned her but now she is pregnant (though Larry does not know this) and decides to find Serafina. Meanwhile, Serafina is stuck in Tijuana caring for her own sick mother and pining for Elvira.
It could be an Oprah-like sentimental story but it's actually more like a prayer or an aria as these two women overcome dangers and pitfalls in their search for each other. The writing is perfect: images, just enough story, the viewpoints of the main characters clearly evolving in each one's distinctive voice. The life is hard, violent, unpredictable; there is barely enough love and hope to keep life going. Possibly this book is too dark for some, too lightweight for others. For me it was a jewel of a book.